To ride dressage is to dance with your horse, equal partners in the delicate and sometimes difficult work of creating harmony and beauty.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

When It's Cold She's Hot; When It's Hot She's Not

Forget for now the two and a half months I've been absent from this blog; I'm jumping in at the present. Here in NW Oregon, apparently, warm, dry, sunny weather was waiting for an invitation, which it got with the summer equinox. And just like that, summer arrived and my mare mellowed a little. So as much as I dislike hot weather, I'm going to do my best to both enjoy and capitalize on this mellowness to move our partnership forward.

Between my four trips to Texas and the extended rainy season, this year has been a wash so far when it comes to Stella's training – so forget about showing. But now that I can ride regularly again, exciting things are happening. In the 'sandbox,' we've been playing with walk/canter, canter/walk transitions (we're Intro Level going on Second; ha), and out of the sandbox she is doing so well. In spite of her nervous energy, she is more dependable with the things we encounter than solid and stolid Lance, which always amazes me. We've even gotten in a few sunset rides!

Last night we headed down through the woods and onto the logging track. It seems just last week it was too muddy to try; now it is firm and solid. Land has changed hands in recent years and there's been lots of logging, clearing and burning; I may not be welcome to ride on my old stomping grounds anymore. But there was no one to question or challenge us at dusk on a Friday night, and Stella handled the unfamiliar environment with cautious willingness. We even came back home via the vineyards (where I do have permission to ride), Stella's first experience there. It was a beautiful evening to ride my beautiful mare and doing so fed my soul richly.

I am ready to start taking lessons from Suzan again just as soon as I can get on her schedule. I also want to get in some trail rides and at least one beach ride with friends. Lance hates it when I take Stella off-property, hollering from the barn the whole time we're gone. They've become good friends, Lance and Stella, although she doesn't mind leaving him at all.

Monday, April 4, 2022

"Normal" is a setting on the washing machine

Yesterday I rode for the third time in seven and a half weeks – I think that is my longest riding dry spell in decades. I was in TX for three and a half weeks helping my parents deal with my dad's terminal diagnosis, came home to one lambing crisis after another (and got in one short ride), went back to TX after two and a half weeks for my brother's memorial service, and came home again a week ago tonight to resume bottle/assisted feedings of lambs and playing catch-up in all other areas of my life, including getting back in the saddle. My first ride this week was another short check-in with Stella, and then yesterday we actually schooled – and my girl was so good! Today was a windy, rainy mess, so I'm shooting for another ride tomorrow. After that, I'm not sure; I have a little medical procedure on Wednesday, and my dad's on hospice....

I'd love to be able to plan ahead for some lessons and shows, at least the Oregon Morgan Classic that was Stella's 2021 debut, but prudence says to hold off scheduling anything for now. I've stopped wondering when life will get back to normal; I'll just ride when I can and treasure each opportunity.

In the meantime, Lance and Stella are getting regular turnout again now that I'm home. It's shedding season, so they really enjoy reciprocal grooming. It makes me happy to see them being friends. So that can continue outside the arena, I invested in a grazing muzzle for Lance. It looks rather draconian, but he accepted it without drama when I tried it on him this week, and it will allow him to spend much more time out on pasture. I did give him a few minutes of actual grazing; he does so love to eat!

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds

Stella is getting an extended break from riding and, unfortunately, practically any exercise at all right now. I planned a trip for February 11-17 to visit and help my parents in Texas, and it turned out that the help they ended up needing was not just cleaning out some junk. I wrote more about that on my farm blog (which I will continue to update); the upshot is that I don't know how long I'll be here. My husband finally turned out Stella (and eventually Lance) in the arena last Sunday for the first time, and said she was rather hard to handle given all her pent-up energy. Ya think?!? My hot tamale is used to near-daily turn-out and/or riding; I'm surprised she hasn't self-combusted by now! It will be interesting to see how she handles when I finally get home. Sometimes extended breaks do wonders for a horse's mind; when it comes to Stella, I wonder if it may do the opposite.

I am missing my home, my routine, my animals. I have gotten to love on a neighbor's dog once, and have seen horses once while walking around my parents' small rural neighborhood outside of Amarillo. Having animals around me has been essential to my mental health for my entire life, but right now my parents' needs trump my own.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Practice makes perfect better

Since our lesson with Suzan, I've been using a CorrecTOR with rear shims to balance my saddle as suggested, and we've been working on keeping the walk (and trot) regular and unhurried. Stella is fine with the CorrecTOR (a few horses aren't), and the saddle position does feel better to me.

Stella understands what my body/leg half-halts mean, and tries to comply (sometimes wonderfully), but other times she is just so full of "go" that it is nearly impossible to s-l-o-w  d-o-w-n to a measured, four-beat walk. So I pull out the toolbox (cavaletti, shoulder-in, leg-yield, halt and rein-back) to help her control herself and we always make a little progress. Sometimes we just work at the walk and trot, sometimes we canter, too – if she's settled enough. Unlike a lot of horses, getting to canter tends to ramp her up rather than lower her energy.
Looking a little tidier after getting her bridle path and jaw line scissor-trimmed.

Yesterday I rode her twice. It was a beautiful day. Since I'd turned the horses out at dusk the night before (and since there will be occasions when she can't have turn-out before a ride, so it's good experience), I just pulled her out of her quarters to school her in the morning (we did our walk warm-up, of course). Stella was working hard to listen to my half-halts, so after some good work at the walk and trot I led her back to her stall, still cool and dry. As the day progressed I got an itch to ride through the woods while the weather allowed, so I turned the horses out to run and play, then saddled up Stella a second time. No warm-up; we just headed up the driveway. She was eager but tense, not a good combo to navigate the slick conditions that lead down onto the neighbor's lot to access the gravel road and she resisted, so I hopped off and led her through their property and remounted using a boulder at the bottom of their drive. We walked up and down all three dead-end 'branches' of Matthews Creek Lane, checking out the 'progress' at the least developed end, but didn't go up the longest, steepest hill on another branch as it was getting dark. Riding in dark clothes with black tack on a black horse with nowhere to get off the gravel lane if a car came through just didn't seem like a good idea. I do have a hi-viz vest but didn't think to don it. 😏

Even though we just walked, Stella worked up a sweat from nerves and lots of hill work, so I put Breezy's cooler on her. Last night Rick cleaned stalls while I fed and watered everyone, so I forgot all about it. When I saw her in the paddock this morning, my 'dressed' horse took me by surprise. Then I had to take a photo; she just looks so elegant, like a movie star relaxing in her dressing gown. 😊

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

First lesson of 2022

After being able to resume more frequent schooling sessions this month, I decided it was time for another lesson with Suzan. I texted her on Sunday, and she said she could fit us in this morning!

It was a drizzly day; I was thinking I might have to walk Stella up and down the barn aisles in lieu of a warm-up. But the lesson before us finished early so Suzan ushered us into the indoor arena. Suzan noted that my saddle isn't sitting balanced on Stella's back, and suggested I use my CorrecTOR pad with shims to lift the cantle. She also noted that Stella has filled out some since our last lesson and is croup-high, meaning she's grown. Hopefully her front end will follow suit....

As before, Suzan was worried that I was going to just get on without lunging Stella first, but after a minute or so of high tension, Stella settled well and we got to work on her, and me. Below are my notes, which I sat down and typed as soon as I got home so as to forget as little as possible!

Use sustained half halt to slow Stella's walk down to a steady, four-beat "3," then ease out of it (not abrupt release) while keeping the clear four-beat walk, BREATHE, and become a wet sandbag in the saddle. If she gets tense or hurried (often!), repeat. and keep repeating as needed. Don't pull on the reins; the half halt should be in my body and legs. If she dives down, squeeze her up with inside leg; if she gets high with her head, follow with my hands. Keep my shoulders down, neck back into collar, chin up (not tucked); look forward between her ears. BREATHE. Let my hips move when she relaxes (think "move with her ribcage/encourage her ribcage to move"). BREATHE.

Most of this applies to trot as well; stretch left side and don't twist torso.

If she startles or spooks at something, let her stand (stroking) until her energy comes down if possible.

Before asking for shoulder-in, do a slow volté (half halt!) and push her hindquarters out, then continue down the wall with that bend. Harder to the left; think "swing her ribcage in a pulsing motion."

Stella did so much better than her first lesson in the indoor. She really wants to scurry along and got frustrated at times that I wouldn't let her go in her default quick, tense pace, but she tried. Suzan remarked on how much better she was today, too. It was a good lesson.

One step back and three steps forward

Last Friday Stella was back to her tense, go-go girl self. When I wanted her to walk she'd jig and break to the trot; at the trot she wanted to rush and break to the canter – but "don't touch my face!" When she acts like that, dancing together like ballroom partners seems a distant dream.

But on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday she was much better. We were able to work at the walk and the trot without drama; I didn't ask her to canter and she didn't insist except for one time she slipped into it as quietly as could be, stayed calm and quiet, and then came back to trot on her own.

I took a photo of her on Sunday, and when I went to my photo file to add it to this post there was a second photo dated 1/16 – from 2021.

Even though it's bittersweet, I'm including it. That's a young, black Morgan stallion that my son got to ride. Last winter while he was at college (he dropped out; that's the bittersweet part) in Walla Walla, WA, he connected with a Morgan trainer there through the girl he was dating. He got to ride at the trainer's several times, and on two different stallions. He said this one was really tall, so I looked him up (at the time; now I can't remember his name). Over 16 hands high; that IS tall for a Morgan! But I was not impressed by the side view I saw of him. It would be interesting see current photos, though, as he was only three or four then and has probably matured a lot. Now if only my son would . . . . 😏

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

1-2-3, as different as can be

Last Thursday morning, the farrier was out to trim the horses' feet. Stella has always been good for him; tense, but good. This time she was not just good, but relaxed for the first time. SmartCalm Ultra for the win! But lest I relax too much....

That afternoon I got home from work with cooperative weather and enough daylight left to ride. We did our usual warm-up walk, and (as near as I can recollect) I started messing with unfamiliar reins (I had swapped them out so that each pair stayed with the bridle they matched). Stella started or jigged or something, and my boot, wet and sandy, forcefully slipped out of the stirrup, which banged into Stella's side. Startled, Stella jumped, which made the stirrup bump her again, and off she went, bucking to the end of the arena. Thankfully I stayed on and got her stopped, because I think it would have really spooked her if I'd come off. Instead, I was able to stroke and calm her, and we finished our ride, including cantering, without incident.
Better yet, STAY on!

The next day I happened to read Anna Blake's newest blog post before heading to the barn to take advantage of the improving weather. After an energetic turn-out,
Turn-out started out calmly enough, but then . . .

I worked on positioning my feet in the stirrups as she suggested, and what do you know; we had an EXCELLENT schooling session. I was happier with my legs and seat, and Stella seemed to be as well. I resolved to read and re-read Anna's post as a reminder until I develop new muscle memory.

The third ride in this post was Sunday afternoon. Stella was back to being a 'go-go girl' (I'm dating myself with that reference!) with lots of nervous energy, jigging and fussiness. Where was my SmartCalm mare? Perhaps I could have found her again – if I'd had time. But Rick called me from town, needing an address, and a septic tank pumper texted me that he was on his way, so I had to find something relatively positive to end on and get back up to the house. Now that I'm typing it out, I realize that those other things – and their effect on my nerves – may have contributed to Stella's nerves.

Since then, we've had rides #4 and #5. Tuesday's ride started out similarly tense to #3. Since she wanted to GO, I let her move into canter work more quickly than usual after our warm-up, and we cantered until she was ready to trot. That seemed to help, although I didn't have long to evaluate the strategy's effect since I was called upon to pick up DS from work in Portland. (I have to wear too many hats....)

Today I said "yes" to Stella's pointed desire to leave the arena and head down the road. It was a beautiful, warm, dry day. She eyed the recycling bins along the road, worried they might flap and rustle like the trash bins did on that windy day, but they behaved themselves. Further down the road, we were greeted by a jarring chorus of barking from a place that has four dogs. Stella stopped. Then their newest one, an LGD, jumped the fence and made her way towards us barking, hackles raised. I dismounted and held the reins, reassuring Stella that I would defend her if necessary. The owner came out and eventually got the dog back onto their property, so I (took a photo of Stella and)
led her past that property before remounting. We continued to the end of the lane and back home, passing the property with barking dogs again without incident. I was so proud of her!

My local Oregon Dressage Society chapter has folded, but the winter schooling show we ran for ~20 years has been picked up by another chapter and I would love to enter Stella in the Bears Above the Ground show at the end of February. In my dressage 'career' I've always set fairly ambitious showing goals and then worked towards reaching them, and that has worked for me with a lot of different horses. But Stella? I know Suzan would tell me to give her more time to grow up, and I know she's right. TTT – things take time. It's only fair to give her that.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Go and glow

The forecast said this morning would be relatively dry, so I turned the horses out for a romp and then tacked up Stella. She was a firecracker in turn-out, but our schooling session was so hunky-dory that the warm glow it created in me lasted for hours, as only a good ride can. Her walk was less hurried, her canter was less worried, her mouth foamed less copiously, and she sweated less profusely. I really do think the calming supplement is doing her some good!